Saturday, May 26, 2012

Rough, Serious Business

Via Hacker News comes this amazing article from The Atlantic in 1989, written by Paul Fussell. It describes what World War II was like from the perspective of ground troops. It makes for rather shocking reading, describing in unflinching detail the parts that tend to get left out of the traditional narratives:
You would expect frontline soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt, sometimes killed, by being struck by parts of their friends' bodies violently detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or Marine what hit him, you'd hardly be ready for the answer "My buddy's head," or his sergeant's heel or his hand, or a Japanese leg, complete with shoe and puttees, or the West Point ring on his captain's severed hand. 
Or try this description of fear in war, for something I knew but had forgotten:
More than a quarter of the soldiers in one division admitted that they'd been so scared they'd vomited, and almost a quarter said that at terrifying moments they'd lost control of their bowels. Ten percent had urinated in their pants. 
Or this description of corpse-robbers in civilian London during the Blitz:
The first thing which the rescue squads and the firemen saw, as their torches poked through the gloom and the smoke and the bloody pit which had lately been the most chic cellar in London, was a frieze of other shadowy men, night-creatures who had scuttled within as soon as the echoes ceased, crouching over any dead or wounded woman, any soignée corpse they could find, and ripping off its necklace, or earrings, or brooch: rifling its handbag, scooping up its loose change.
When they say war is hell, they mean more than they tend to describe in detail.

It is easy to look on a scene such as this:

File:Normandy American Cemetery 9830a.jpg
and think of the immense sacrifice that such soldiers made.

It is altogether another to look openly on the sheer horror that they faced, stripped of the gauzy image that Hollywood gives us.

I don't think it diminishes what they did, but rather makes it more incredible when you reflect on those that came back, and managed to get on with their lives.

Fussell recounts the words of a frontline infantryman to a somewhat naive reporter on the front lines:
Tell 'em it's rough as hell. Tell 'em it's rough. Tell 'em it's rough, serious business. That's all. That's all.
It surely is.

Read the whole thing.

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